Square Enix has been pumping games out lately, but this is the big one. The last time a new numbered Final Fantasy hit was in 2016, and the world has changed so much in the time since that it feels like a lifetime ago. Even so, Final Fantasy 15 proved divisive, to say the least, and 16 arrived with a very different team and vision. It’s a vision many long-time fans have struggled to understand, and the discourse to come will certainly sustain itself to the next game and beyond. While there’s plenty of Final Fantasy 14 DNA coursing through its veins, Final Fantasy 16 takes some massive swings. From a thoroughly M-rated tone to a balls-out “Character Action” combat system, it’s no surprise to see folks out there once again asking what it even means to be a “core” Final Fantasy. But by the end, this one feels like Final Fantasy in as true a form as possible.
Final Fantasy says F**k now
To start things off, we need to make something about Final Fantasy 16's story very clear. This writer thinks the past decade of Game of Thrones’ cultural impact has been one of humanity’s biggest media crimes, alongside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So when I heard one of the development team’s key inspirations was GoT, my red flags were flying at full mast. Sure enough, when Final Fantasy 16's opening hours erupted with edgy, dark fantasy vibes complete with shock deaths, uncanny horniness, and projectile vomited f-bombs, I was ready to perish on the spot.
I’m grateful, though, that just as I felt enough pressure building up behind my rolling eyes to blow my brains out of my skull, the game seemed to get most of this nonsense out of its system. As the narrative developed with a level of self-restraint and respect for storytelling “prestige television” producers would balk at, I gradually found myself not just fully on board but emotionally invested. It crept up on me, too; I hadn’t realized Final Fantasy 16 had me in its clutches until I was feeling capital-m "Moved" by story developments unfurling during a side quest! There are certainly bumps in the road, but overall Square Enix has something special here, and I am genuinely stoked to watch the conversations to come.
This feat (by which I mean my cold, jaded games media heart melting) is achieved by a story that is deeply focused on a sole character arc. The emphasis on Clive Rosfield as the sole player character and protagonist in a genre normally accustomed to ensemble cast stories really pays off. While the supporting cast and world-building are fairly strong, it’s all in service to telling a complete, in-depth character story that spans nearly two decades. Ben Starr’s vocal performance has such gravity and nuance that I believed every word, no matter how corny, and despite spending more than 70 hours with Clive, I was ready to keep going for another 70.
The rest of the cast, especially Final Fantasy 16’s iteration of Cid, voiced by Ralph Ineson, is just as good. A top-notch localization holds up said cast as what I consider to be one of the best English voiceovers for an RPG I’ve ever experienced. It’s all the more impressive considering Final Fantasy has really struggled in this department over the years. Here, there’s a tangible care taken to speech patterns and dialect in the script which circumvents some of the traditional awkwardness that can come from localizations of this scale.
Yeah, that’s a lot of gushing, but the strength of the performances and character arcs is important, as they often carry extra weight when other aspects of Final Fantasy 16’s writing stumble. There was some pre-release discourse centered around the game’s Active Time Lore (ATL) system, which was taken from interviews as a safety net of sorts to help players (and the developers themselves) keep track of an overcomplicated plot. That’s not actually the case... for the most part.
Devil's in the details
The way Final Fantasy 16 handles its massive pile of high-fantasy lore is actually quite impressive. The ATL system is often handy, especially early on, as it merely provides small pieces of up-to-date context for when and where you are in the story. While the story is legitimately easy to follow thanks to strong character writing, having the quick, simple tidbits for things like geography on hand is great. Especially since this tool is very different from, say, Final Fantasy 13’s atrocious codex menus.
Higher-level lore stuff is also handled in fun, creative ways here. As the game progresses, you’ll meet Vivian Ninetales, who introduces the State of the Realm feature. This is the proper “codex,” where you can sift through a complex web of character relationships, timelines and of course, the map. Going over the map is often part of the main story, even, as Clive and his crew often speak to Vivian before bigger excursions. This stuff is delivered like a historian enthusiastically orating, well, history, and goes a long way towards making the boring details actually fun to keep up with.
Problems show up when you scrutinize those details, though. As much as the characters drive the story and the lore mechanisms are well-crafted, the lore itself doesn’t hit as well. It’s a problem resulting from too much going on at once, which muddies a lot of the thematic waters. This part is hard to go into without diving into spoiler territory, but there are a couple of examples I can point to.
The big one concerns the overall world, and the people who live in it, which, of course, ties into an early Final Fantasy 16 controversy involving diversity. While this world includes more than just white people, it’s also a world that is poorly defined in a cultural sense. Each region has its own governing bodies, and how those bodies operate and interact is chiefly driven by what is essentially a climate crisis. But for all the lore gimmicks and larger-than-life leadership around this world, the actual worldly presence of these nations is weirdly shallow. So when it comes time to move pieces around the board, establish antagonists and develop conflicts, much of it falls flat. Motivations for the villains are either unclear or feel divorced from their status as political figures, and differences in things like how Bearers are treated feel more individualized. Because of this, the world feels more like a big soup of sameness, even when some parts of the soup dress or speak differently. It’s weird and conflicts with ostensible themes like isolation. It makes the whole diversity thing hard to comment on, too, since nothing on that level feels thoughtful one way or the other.
In terms of the bigger picture, you end up with Clive somewhat bouncing back and forth between his personal motivations, the Big Bad’s creeping influence, and a more confused-feeling story that’s like a hybrid of medieval slavery/class uprising and the X-Men. The former is more polished and compelling than the latter, and the ways the two intersect can be awkward. Overall I believe Final Fantasy 16 is interested in exploring various ways a callous, dehumanizing ruling class inherently sets itself up for failure. But it tries to explore those various ways all at once, fumbling a few along the way.
Final Fantasy 16 also struggles at times with its supporting characters. I noted before the strong performances and characters that do a great job reinforcing Clive’s story. At the same time, that focus on Clive does come at the expense of everyone else. Especially when the “everyone else” is a woman. Jill’s presence in the story especially falls short compared to others like Cid or Dion, who are more consistently active agents in the story. Jill often just feels present for the sake of having a female lead to check off a box, which is a bummer because when she’s the actual focus her contributions to the story are notably strong.
Clive may cry (a few times)
At the end of the day though, little of Final Fantasy 16 is as strong as its combat. Square Enix knocked it out of the park with this one. Experimenting with RPG-heavy action systems has been a long tradition in Final Fantasy. Under Capcom alum and combat director Ryota Suzuki, the action feels developed well past the experimental phase. You’d be forgiven for expecting something closely resembling Devil May Cry, but that’s not at all what was delivered. There are familiar verbs and functions, but the tools and applications are distinct and feel right at home in Final Fantasy.
At the heart of Final Fantasy 16’s gameplay is creativity. Players get access to a bag of tools that broadens in scale and sophistication as the game progresses. Clive’s own abilities are expanded upon with Eikons, the traditional “Summons” in Final Fantasy parlance that have a whole new kind of presence here. Now we’re looking at an almost Mega Man-like structure that lets you equip each Eikon as its own small pool of skills. As you invest more time and resources into mixing and matching your skills, the complexity of the process increases. This results in an endgame toy box that has intentional limits to encourage experimentation with builds.
The possibilities feel just a hair short of limitless, and there’s a sense of playfulness with familiar concepts for fans of Character Action games that will no doubt get those creative juices flowing. For example, there’s no static “launcher” button but myriad routes to starting and maintaining air combos. But you can also ignore air combat entirely if you want, and what feels like a billion options in between. My favorite Eikon felt like having a “Stand” as if Clive was taking a page from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It’s good stuff, y’all.
Eikons aren’t just for equipping cooldown skills. They’re also focal points of the story, absurdly powerful forces that are just as important for political machinations as they are putting giant craters in the ground. This is reflected in showcase moments in the gameplay as well, as climactic battles will transition from the on the ground combo clashes to beyond over the top, genre-tearing blowouts that rip off the limiters in every way possible. These moments are when convention is tossed aside, and composer Masayoshi Soken gets to unleash his playful side alongside everyone else. We’re talking quick time events, ridiculous setpieces, and unique mechanics (I swear to God that Sonic the Hedgehog is invoked at one glorious point), super robot anime tropes, and more. These moments, in particular, made me feel ashamed of my words and deeds for ever being concerned about the Game of Thrones inspiration.
Combat sickos will be eating good with Final Fantasy 16, well after the credits run. There are multiple difficulty options and a truly impressive New Game Plus offering on the table, but there’s a whole score-attacking leaderboard-filling arcade mode structure as well. You can replay chunks of the game roped off into “stages,” both with all your gear and levels intact as well as more rigidly-defined stats with even more bespoke difficulty options. I wish some of the other parts of Final Fantasy 16 were cooked as well as the combat, because damn!
Some of the other systems feel way underbaked in comparison. There’s Chocobos, for instance, but the one you get to ride feels like a novelty tossed in for its own sake. There’s a crafting system, but the stat progression is oddly linear, especially considering how much junk material is constantly thrown at you. Supporting characters also get to participate in combat as “party members,” but despite being represented as cute sprites in the save UI and visibly using skills, their inclusion feels shallow at best. Torgal (the dog, not to be confused with the weird little frog guy Turgle in Star Wars) is another story. His presence in combat is a huge deal, and you really feel it when he’s not around for various reasons. Obviously, having control over multiple characters would be too much, but something more meaningful than lip service would’ve been nice.
Final Fantasy 16 is a massive game that, in many ways, feels like a response to years of rocky terrain. This is one of the most beloved series in gaming, but one that has had big ups and downs, especially in recent memory. That’s not to suggest Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t have problems (and, for the record, I loved 15), but what it does have in spades is polish. It’s a nebulous term I don’t like to use, but feels distinctly apt here. Final Fantasy 16 has a sense of completeness; this is a game that feels finished from conception to release. For all its flaws and flourishes, this game stands like an anomaly in the world of AAA video games, in that all its bones are in place for us all to devour and digest, like a blockbuster movie or hardcover novel. I’m not waiting for a patch or contemplating possible DLC, or wondering what was missing or left on the cutting room floor in desperation to meet deadlines. Instead, I’ve let a story wash over me like a tidal wave, and the only thing I’m looking for after is seeing what everyone else has to say. That’s exactly what I want from Final Fantasy.
This review was based on a PlayStation 5 code provided by the publisher. Final Fantasy 16 is set to release on June 22, 2023 for the PlayStation 5.
Final Fantasy 16
- Huge, compelling character study-style narrative
- Final Fantasy-flavored Character Action-style combat
- Lots of side quests that enhance the story and gameplay
- Huge, ridiculous kaiju/mecha-style boss fights
- Lore tools are well-implemented and fun to use
- World-building is messy and shallow
- Competing plot elements clash at times
- Non-combat systems feel under-cooked
- Fumbles with supporting characters (especially women)
Lucas White posted a new article, Final Fantasy 16 review: get in the big monster, Clive
But I need to finish D4 first.
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Got a dentist appointment tomorrow then I'll take the afternoon to start playing. #hype